Bilberries & Night Vision:
Reality Check


"In Gweithdy Bach we'll rest awhile,
We'll dress our wounds & learn to smile
With easier lips; we'll stretch our legs,
And live on bilberry tart & eggs."

-Robert Graves
(1895-1985)

   

Bilberries like other vacciniums & other edible fruits & plants include isoflavins, vitamins, & numerous phytochemical compounds that make fresh fruits so healthful overall (see the companion article on Antioxidants in Vacciniums for an assessment of the very positive effects on health & aging).

Curiously, though many positive health benefits can be had from eating bilberries, the herbal industry insists on promoting it primarily for its alleged ability to improve night-vision & assist sundry eye troubles. Controlled doubleblind studies have shown there is no special significance for vision. The profitability of keeping this myth alive means herb vendors will encourage the gullible & the superstitious to believe it forever.

Origin of the Myth

Bilberry is the common name of Vaccinium myrtillus, sometimes called Creeping Blueberry. Some people call several American species of huckleberries bilberries, but generally it is the European shrub that carries this name.

The myth that bilberries improve vision is just that, a myth. The usual story is that RAF pilots ate bilberry jam before heading out on night sorties, & for that reason bilberries or their extracts are today sold as an herbal remedy for poor vision & sight-related diseases.

The legend of the magical value of bilberries for super-vision in darkness is alleged to have been started during World War II when RAF pilots purportedly received bilberry jam as a regular part of their rations & which the pilots came to regard as a vision-enhancing potion improving their night-targetting of German enemy locations. Or, downed pilots would seek out bilberry bushes & eat the fruit, so they could see to travel by night when trying to return from behind enemy lines.

There is no good evidence that RAF pilots ever believed such a thing, but it wouldn't have been completely out of the question, because RAF pilots were notoriously superstitious. Many pilots had good luck charms of one kind or another & lost their nerve if their lucky charms were lost. They credulously told ghost stories & angel-stories to each other, such as the RAF tale of being led through a fogbank to safety, or aided during aereal combat with Germans, by British phantom biplanes arriving from out of the clouds to help WWII pilots, afterward vanishing, these having been the ghosts of ace pilots from the First World War.

So as fabrications go, there was a ring of plausibility to the idea that RAF pilots began telling each other that bilberries increased their night-vision, for they might indeed have believed in bilberries the same way they believed in phantom biplanes or helpful angelic hosts taking Britain's side in the war.

But it turns out that this bit of mythology likely never existed among RAF pilots. One herbal quack, Robert Bidleman, who on the Bitnet Herb newsgroup even stated that the effect of bilberry on version occurred "in a matter of minutes," claimed at an herb-promotional website that he had interviewed elderly RAF pilots about this. Sad to say, Bidleman kept no proof, documentation, or names that he has ever been able to share. By contrast, Thomas Dobie, MD, PhD, who was a RAF pilot in WWII, & director of the National Biodynamics Laboratory at the University of New Orleans, when asked about this myth said he remembered eating Bilberries in Scotland as a child, but could recall no special significance to RAF pilots.

Col. Mark Well, PhD, who wrote a book on RAF pilots, likewise said that in all his years as an historian deeply devoted to the topic of wartime air pilots, he never came across any reference whatsoever to bilberries. WebMD.com contacted experts at the RAF Museum, the Imperial War Museum, the RAF Centre of Aviation Medicine, & the Bomber Command Historical Society, & not one of them had ever heard of this bit of mythology.

The only person WebMD.com could find who had any recollection of anything even slightly related to this was David Holmes of Raleigh, N.C., who remembered his grandfather (who flew with the RAF) mentioning that after the introduction of radar, RAF bombing became more accurately targetted, but to confuse the enemy, the story was leaked that it "was something in the pilots' diet" that improved their targetting -- that something, however, was carrots, not bilberries, & the story was concocted merely to keep the Germans from knowing the real reason for improved accuracy.

Virtually all interest & allegations about the usefulness of bilberry for vision stems from the legend that RAF pilots used it. Even if they had used it, this is hardly evidence of anything, given the superstitious nature of RAF pilots -- as well to use the superstitions of baseball players as proof that the supernatural is real. But it begins to look like the RAF connection for this belief in bilberry vision-enhancing was itself a fairy tale, & no RAF pilots ever believed that particular fantasy.
Alternative Medicine Review is predisposed to giving positive reviews to herbs. Yet even this journal could not but publish in April 2000 the findings of Lt. Eric Muth, PhD, a double-blind study entitled "The Effect of Bilberry Nutritional Supplementation on Night Visual Acuity & Contrast Sensitivity." This is by far the best study yet designed, & it discovered that there was no basis for the belief.

This was a Navy-funded study, & they had hoped to discover they could improve the night vision of naval flyers by giving them bilberry, but there was simply no such effect. Three poorly modeled studies done in the 1960s in France had left open some faint hope of value, but alas a study with better controls closed even the slightest statistical possibility.

Other alternative medicine journals & especially pop-books have published editorials & assertions alleging value from bilberry in treating cataracts & all manner of eye problems, but these were just herbal quacks passing on beliefs without science to back them up.

A Tufts University study with its preliminary findings reported in a Tufts University newsletter showed that high daily doses of vitamin C lowered the incident of cataracts in women. This seems to be the basis of the herb vendors' wilder claims for there being "scientific" proof of bilberry extract increasing night vision, which the study in no way was set up to prove or disprove. This effect upon cataracts, were it real, has little to do with bilberries per se, & even less to do with night vision. But it seems to be one of the few bits of science upon which herb promoters base exaggerations amounting to lies, encouraging the incorrect belief that bilberry enhances night vision, cures cataracts, near-sightedness & assists sundry other eye troubles it in reality cannot effect.

A study specifically with bilberry extracts does exist, quite a good one, but it does not get cited by herb-promotoers. "The Age-Related Eye Disease Study" sponsored by the National Eye Institute looked specifically at bilberry extracts in treatment of cataracts, & found bilberry to be worthless. But that hasn't slowed down the vendor claims, nor has it put the kabosh on the gullibility of herbal hypochondriacs.

It's unfortunate that herb users are frequently merely gullible, & promoters frequently outright liars. For there is so much good that could be said of the positive impact of berries on human health, that it is really too bad promoters have to add foolishness to the mix, muddling reality so that the average soul cannot tell fact from fairy tale.

The vendors are peddling bilberry extracts in gelatin pills as eye medications, & the commonest claim is that the bilberry in their preparations contain 25% anthocyanoside, one of the key antioxidants. It turns out, however, that bilberry is rarely the primary ingredient, the concoctions being adulterated with such fillers as tuna fish oil or grape-skin extract, these being low-end recyclable waste products made from the leftover garbage of fruit juice & wine production or water-packed tuna.

So the product is first of all worthless for the purpose it is being sold for, & secondly, the amount of valuable antioxidant in the product is only a fraction of the 25% so often repeated. Obviously one should stick to eating the fruit, & not imagine one small pill adds more than half-a-cherry's worth of anything to one's dietary needs.

The vendors don't want you to know that whatever antioxidant value can be had from fruits is had from eating them fresh, fresh-frozen, freeze-dried, in concentrates, syrups, jams, jellies, & preserves. Herbs posing as pharmaceuticals have no magical quality above & beyond the fruits themselves.

Most vendors when backed into a corner or forced to legally prove their claims will admit it is only a "traditional folk remedy" (meaning they cater to superstitions of people who think folklore is the better part of science), but the cornered companies don't personally recommend their products be taken for any medicinal purposes, but only as food supplements. Even so, they so encourage a belief in bilberry as a "treatment" for macular degeneration & cataracts & night-vision enhancement, so that I believe they really should be blitzed with civil suits from people who failed to get actual medical treatment & so hastened their road to blindness by relying on non-medical pamphleteering, vendor promotions, & the advice of otherwise unemployable check-out tellers while shopping at misnomered healthfood stores.

Being moronic enough to believe bilberries make it possible to see in the dark is a fairly harmless delusion, but believing it will help with eye diseases that could have been successfully treated with actual medical care means that this kind of superstitious tommyrot blinds people & destroys their quality of life. Vendors who pander to this level of delusion in order to get rich while injuring peoples' health should be thrown in jail.

Donald J. Brown in the appalling Herbal Prescriptions for Better Health claimed there was "evidence" for Bilberries which improved the night-vision of rabbits. But no such double-blind rabbit study exists in any peer-reviewed scientific journal. Brown is cheating by relying on an animal study of atherosclerosis, an arterial disease, which nowhere stated that rabbits had improved night vision. Brown pretends to be a doctor, but he is no more an M.D. than was Colonel Sanders a colonel in the armed forces. Mister Brown isn't even a pharmacologist. He's a self-styled naturopathic "phytotherapist," which amounts to his being an herbal quack, whose research is used by businesses to promote products, but not published in peer-reviewed journals of actual science. He used to be a teacher at the pseudo-scientific Bastyr University which promotes among other laughable falsities homeopathy which is a Theosophy- & Alchemy-based pseudo-science that contradicts the basic physics of the known universe.

That type of popular book so mixes up the absurd with the vaguely possible that it ultimately becomes worthless as a guide to any degree of good health. Mister Brown's book & many like it fail to distinguish the proven from the disproven, & may at best be useful for helping herbal hypochondriacs avoid gobbling down stuff that is outright toxic & deadly. As founder & president of Natural Products Research Consultants, Inc., Brown's focus is on products, not efficacy, & profits, not health. An honest guide to the use of herbs would discount 90% as crackpottism & superstition, then attempt to sort out the muddle of mistruths & exaggerations for the remaining 10%. But to dismiss 90% of an industry is not the purpose of promotional books that serve the products industry foremost.

Many such "pop" authors cite an old Italian study by Fiorni G. Biancacci et al, which is not available in English. The various pop authors merely cite each others' citations, & there is never any real data provided, as any data that actually exists tends to prove the opposite of the claims being made. The only synopsis of this article I could find in English suggested that it had evocative or suggestive findings that bilberry extracts might help heal capillaries in the eyes. But this possibility could not be substantiated by a later Israeli study that concluded there was no such effect, or by any other study since.

A typical promo-essay for bilberry extracts will cite the RAF urban legend, then allude to actual chemical components of bilberry & similar fruits, then speak of "theories" about their usefulness in treating macular degeneration, cataracts, & improving night-vision, all the while never literally claiming value of any kind for their product per se, to protect themselves from being sued or imprisoned. Yet by the overwhelming insinuation that they are selling something usefully medicinal, the vendor or advocate leaves the victimized consumer with the clear & definite impression that herbal powders & extracts have been recommended for something specific. So I believe the vendors should be sued or imprisoned for endangering peoples' health.

The modern market for bilberry extract to correct near-sightedness & improve night-vision is not a harmless fraud. Since concentrated bilberry extract can inhibit clotting & worsen bleeding disorders, it can be dangerous (the fresh fruit lacks this danger). And anyone with a treatable eye disorder who fell for this mythology instead of visiting an eye doctor could go blind as punishment for being so damned gullible.

   



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